24 tips for creating translation-friendly content
Are you a technical writer, marketer or content creator? Do you create English copy for the purpose of translation? Great translations all have one common ingredient: the source text. There’s an art to crafting texts that resonate with a global audience. The better your source text, the better your translations are likely to be. Here are our top tips for creating translation-friendly content.
Tip 1: Limit the length of sentences
The Plain Language Commission recommends an average sentence length of 15–20 words. Shorter sentences help the reader to understand your message without unnecessary effort. Short sentences can be punchy and powerful. Yet too many short sentences can make your writing dull. So it’s a good idea to vary your sentence length to give rhythm to your writing.
Tip 2: Use clear, simple verbs, and avoid noun strings
Verbs give your writing power and precision! Use verbs to express significant actions in your sentences. It will help you to create more translation-friendly content. Let’s look at this example of stuffy officialese below. It contains heavy noun phrases that smother the verbs.
The technical term for changing verbs or adjectives into nouns is nominalisation. Although there’s nothing wrong with nominalisation, it can make your sentences longer. In contrast, verb-centred writing tends to result in more readable texts.
Tip 3: Try to use the active voice instead of the passive voice
The passive voice isn’t as common in some other languages as it is in English. Using the passive voice can also introduce ambiguity. Conversely, the active voice is clearer and more direct. It brings dynamism and a personal touch to your writing. Your translators will appreciate it!
Tip 4: Don’t use contronyms
A contronym is a word with two opposite meanings. English has many words that have opposite meanings! These words illustrate the fascinating complexity and versatility of the English language. Take a look at the flashcards below to see a few examples of contronyms. Although your readers may be able to guess the correct meaning from the context, why risk confusing them? Our advice? Find a clearer synonym.
Tip 5: Avoid words with multiple meanings
Likewise, try to avoid words that have multiple meanings. Again, English has many words that have several different meanings. Will your readers struggle to understand the intended meaning with your word choice? If so, consider an unambiguous alternative. This is important if your text will be translated into many other languages.
Tip 6: Avoid using idioms
An idiom is an expression where the overall meaning is different from the meanings of its individual words. Idioms and metaphors give zest to your writing. But they can be difficult for non-native speakers to understand. If your content is going to be translated, try to be clear and precise in your use of language.
Tip 7: Don’t overuse ellipses
An ellipsis is a punctuation mark that consists of three evenly spaced dots. An ellipsis represents omitted words or a pause. Writers also use an ellipsis to suggest that there’s more to come, or to trail off into silence. Some readers find too many ellipses irritating, so it’s best to use them sparingly. What about ellipses and translation? The syntax of other languages can differ greatly from that of English. So if you use ellipses to create suspense in your English text, you may not get the same result in other languages.
Tip 8: Don’t capitalise common nouns
This one is important! Some writers fall into the trap of using capitals to convey importance. This can lead to inconsistencies in your own writing and confusion during translation. Translators use syntactic cues like capitalisation to determine which words to leave untranslated. Do capitalise proper nouns, though!
Tip 9: Use sentence case, even for headings
First, let’s look at what we mean by sentence case, title case and upper case.
Sentence case is a capitalisation style that capitalises the first letter of the first word in a sentence. The rest of the words in the sentence should not be capitalised unless they are proper nouns.
Title Case is a style that capitalises all major words. Writers use this style for the titles of books, films, songs and other works. However, different style guides disagree over which words to capitalise when using Title Case.
UPPER CASE is a style where all the letters are capitalised. Some designers use this style for headings and for emphasis. In informal contexts, it can look like the writer is shouting!
Capitalisation and readability
The way you present your text affects its readability and people’s ability to understand it.
Text written ENTIRELY IN UPPER CASE can take up to 50% longer to read because it has no visual shape. Have you ever read to the very end of terms and conditions written in UPPER CASE? Don’t worry if you haven’t. Many people don’t.
Capitalisation and translation
Capitalisation is an important syntactic cue for translators. When your content appears in UPPER CASE or Title Case, translators have to work harder to identify which words to leave untranslated. This is one reason why we advise writers and designers to use sentence case.
The second reason relates to consistency and cost. Many CAT tools don’t recognise identical text written in different cases as repeated text. Using sentence case will increase consistency in your translations. It will keep your costs down, too.
Lastly, many Asian and Middle Eastern alphabets don’t have upper case, so this style is a poor design choice for multilingual publications.
There are two exceptions that we’d like to mention. PascalCase is a capitalisation style that you will often see in computer programming languages. The first letter of each word is capitalised, similar to Title Case. Then there’s camelCase. The first word is in lower case and the first letter of subsequent words is capitalised. The capital letter looks like a camel’s hump. You will often see these styles in hashtags on social media platforms. They are important for making your content accessible. These styles make the hashtag easier to read. But they also allow screen readers to distinguish between the words in a hashtag.
Tip 10: Write positively
Negative statements are appropriate for cautions and warnings. But if you can convey an idea either positively or negatively, then convey it positively. Positive statements tend to be more concise. They are also easier to understand and to translate.
Tip 11: Use complete sentences to introduce lists
Sentence fragments create extra work for translators. This is because syntax varies from one language to another. In the unordered list below, we have separated a preposition from its objects.
After reading this blog, you will have learnt about:
- Creating translation-friendly content
- Writing according to the principles of plain English
- Making your content more accessible
Let’s turn the introductory phrase into a complete sentence:
After reading this blog, you will have learnt about the following:
- Creating translation-friendly content
- Writing according to the principles of plain English
- Making your content more accessible
It’s a simple change that makes translators’ work easier. Your translated lists will be neater, too!
Bonus tip: Remember to keep list items parallel, too. Are the following elements in your lists consistent?
- Bullet point styles, numerals or letters
- Initial capitalisation
- Starts with the same type of word
- End punctuation
Take a look at the flashcards below to see some examples of lists that are not parallel.
Tip 12: Watch out for obscure foreign words
Words of French, Latin, Greek, German, Yiddish, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic origin have enriched the English language. Some foreign words can sound pretentious, though. And if your translated content is being used as a script, foreign words can be hard to pronounce. Our advice? Use foreign words only if there are no good English alternatives.
Tip 13: Consider whether you really need to use abbreviations
Short forms of words or phrases can cause confusion and inconsistencies. Our advice? Ask yourself whether your reader is likely to understand them. Look out for common abbreviations that are styled in different ways. Standardise your approach by following a style guide. Write out non-standard abbreviations, and use the English equivalents of some Latin abbreviations.
Tip 14: Avoid unusual contractions
Contractions can add warmth and a conversational tone to your writing. They could be too informal for technical content, though. Our advice? Avoid contractions that are unusual or excessively informal. Avoid them when forming questions. Consider the level of formality of your content. Do contractions match the text type? Try to be consistent!
Tip 15: Avoid using (s) to form plural nouns in content for translation
It is often not directly translatable. In many languages, articles, adjectives, participles and pronouns have to agree with a noun’s gender and number. What can you use instead? You can use expressions like one or more, every, each or any of. Or opt to use only the singular form or only the plural form.
Tip 16: Find ways to eliminate em dashes
Although the em dash is a versatile punctuation mark in American English, a spaced en dash is more common in British English. The em dash is rarely used in other languages. It is sometimes used in French and Spanish to set off dialogue. Good translators use punctuation marks according to the conventions of the target language. Yet if your source text contains em dashes, some may end up in your translations. How can you remove em dashes from your writing? Wherever possible, use a separate sentence. Or use parentheses instead.
Tip 17: Be aware of third-person pronouns
Some third-person personal pronouns can be ambiguous. In gendered languages, the translations of it, they and them differ depending on the gender and number of the noun they refer to. Consider replacing a pronoun with the appropriate noun phrase. Make sure the sentence still sounds natural, though!
CAT tools segment a source text sentence by sentence. Do you know what the word it refers to in the sentence below?
It offers drivers a price advantage.
How about if you know what comes before?
Where applicable, promote the three-year car breakdown cover.
Conscientious project managers will join these two segments. This helps translators to understand what the third-person pronoun is referring to.
Tip 18: Try not to use this, that, these and those as pronouns
A pronoun replaces a noun or a noun phrase. In gendered languages, pronouns have to agree with the gender and number of the noun that they are referring to. If the noun is missing, it means that the words this, that, these and those are being used as pronouns. When it is not clear what the pronouns are referring to, they become difficult to translate. When the words this, that, these and those are used as adjectives and appear before a noun, their meaning is clear.
Tip 19: Don’t use an ampersand instead of the word and in text
An ampersand is a logogram that represents the conjunction and. Ampersands are rare in published material. Our advice? Use and rather than the & symbol in text, unless it is part of a name. It’s fine to use the ampersand in tables and diagrams if space is tight.
Tip 20: Keep phrasal verbs together
Fans of plain English like phrasal verbs because they consist of short, simple words. They often replace longer, more complex words. The trouble with phrasal verbs is that a change in preposition can transform the meaning. Speakers of English as a second language find phrasal verbs challenging to master. So wherever possible, keep the parts of a phrasal verb together.
Tip 21: Use nouns as nouns and verbs as verbs
Language evolves. In English, nouns are often adapted into verbs to suit contemporary communication styles. However, in most other languages, it isn’t possible to convert a noun into a verb. Use words as they are classified in dictionaries to help your translators understand what you mean.
Tip 22: Use consistent terminology
Remove unnecessary synonyms to make your writing more consistent and easier to translate. This also makes your content more accessible and comprehensible to all readers.
The diamond industry offers a shining example of good terminology management. A host of leading diamond industry bodies worked together to create the Diamond Terminology Guideline. Their efforts have led to greater transparency about a diamond’s origin. The initiative has also boosted the integrity of the industry. And better-informed customers know what they are buying.
Tip 23: Watch out for misplaced modifiers
A modifier is a word or group of words that describes another part of a sentence. A misplaced modifier is a modifier that is not placed close enough to what it is supposed to describe. Misplaced modifiers can be unintentionally hilarious. Have you ever come across any unusual descriptions in tourist brochures?
Sipping a cocktail on the roof terrace, the sunset was a marvel to behold.
In the example above, it sounds as though it’s the sunset that is enjoying the cocktail.
You can correct misplaced modifiers by positioning the modifier as closely as possible to the word or phrase that it is modifying.
Tip 24: Punctuate your text properly
In addition to misplaced modifiers, incorrectly positioned punctuation can also lead to confusion. Using apostrophes or commas in the wrong place will almost certainly distort the meaning of your text. In contrast, correct use of punctuation makes your text clearer and more readable.
Creating translation-friendly content benefits your English readers, too!
To sum up, there are many benefits to keeping your translators in mind as you write your English content. Firstly, a clear source text can reduce translation turnaround times. How? It minimises the time you spend replying to translators’ queries. It also reduces the possibility of having to apply source text amendments. Secondly, your source text is likely to be more concise. The added benefit of shorter source texts is cost savings in translation. Above all, a great source text is the best way to ensure that your translations will be great as well. But let’s not forget your English readers! They will enjoy reading clearer and more comprehensible content, too.
If you’re unsure where to start with making your English content clearer, we’re here to help. In addition to providing first-class translations, we can also proofread your English content. If you’d like to learn more about our proofreading and translation services, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
About the author
Bethan Thomas has worked in the language services industry for 20 years. She is a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading. At Planet Languages, she helps international brands make their multilingual content shine.
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